Writing fiction is an activity that demands an extraordinary amount of patience. In fact, I’m convinced that the legendary “patience of a saint” is trivial compared to the patience required to be writer.
Patience, unfortunately, is an attribute I am not naturally blessed with. As a consequence, my development as a fiction writer has been accompanied by a parallel development in the amount of patience I exhibit. This patience is required in three separate, but related, areas: in designing a story, in revising the story and in waiting for a reply from a market.
Designing a story
This first area was the toughest to acquire to acquire patience in. When I first started writing, I worked the way many, if not most, inexperienced writers work; as soon as a story idea popped into my head, I started writing the first scene in the new story. Inevitably, the story thudded to a stop after two or three scenes. While I grappled to try to continue the story, I’d get another idea and go off on a different, but no less futile, attempt to write a story. This process led to an alarming inventory of half-written, underdeveloped stories. Over time, I realized that my process needed changing.
In developing a new process, I came to the shocking realization that writing the first draft of a story is the last thing a writer does on the project and that this writing constitutes only a small part of the work involved, on the order of ten to fifteen percent. My new process involves a great deal of patience since it requires that I now first develop the characters, a story ending and a believable path from the story beginning to the end. Only then can I start the fun stuff: writing a first draft. In short, the new process requires that I have the patience to completely design a story prior to writing the first draft. By actual observation, this sometimes can take three years to go from the first idea (always about a character) until I get a satisfactory story design for that character to romp around in. During this time, I usually have a number of variations that are found wanting and end up discarded
My lack of patience in revising stories made me waste a lot of time and, I’m sure, annoyed a multitude of editors. Whenever I finished a revision, I always enthusiastically thought it was perfect and I sent it off to a market. The only advantage, a dubious one, of this process is that it led to rapid replies, always a rejection and always a pre-printed form or email
Gradually, an alternative method took shape. I noticed the rejected stories always had many problems: in the writing style, in the continuity of plot logic and in the characterization and typos to mention a few. Now, I put the just-finished draft away for a time and then read it again. Once the revision is completed, I put it away again. After an interval, I repeat the process. I continue this process until one of two situations occur. The first is that I don’t make any additional corrections. The second is a feeling that if I read the story one more time, I’ll throw up. When either of these occur, the story is ready to get subbed.
When I first started writing, replies came back almost instantaneously. At the time, I didn’t realize that the rapidity of the response — always a rejection — indicated a lousy manuscript. As my skills improved and my experience grew, the response times increased and began to draw comments from the editors. These increases tested my patience and I groused to myself about the inefficiency of the editors. Eventually, I intuited that lengthy intervals meant my story was a contender for a slot in a future edition of the magazine. Alas, from experience, I learned that a lengthy interval could also mean a sick editor, a bankrupt publisher, or a lost submission. All of these things happened to me more than once.
Now that I’ve developed patience, my writing processes are much more stable and efficient. Frankly, I miss the antsy feelings I used to get while waiting for an editors reply. I also miss the enthusiasm that filled me as I threw myself into a new, and totally incomplete, story idea. As for revising stories over and over, I can’t think of anything else that is quite so dull.
All in all, I find patience isn’t as great as it’s cracked up to be. While it may indeed be a virtue, it’s still pretty boring and a lack of it can make life more interesting.